It was quiet that evening. Strangely quiet. Neither of the two Padawans was in trouble with anybody else’s Master, or late with academic assignments, or ‘not speaking’ to any other Padawans, or working late in either the laboratory or the dojo. And Obi-Wan had been called away by an unexpected Council session.
He returned, tired and grave, two hours before midnight, fully aware that neither Nasriel nor Ben would have thought to go to bed. Children.
“… your whole name, I mean,” Nasriel was saying when he opened the door.”
“Well, what’s yours?” Ben retorted. “And the titles.”
They were lying on the floor, almost finished piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. As Nasriel considered the question, she selected another puzzle piece, studied it, and tapped it gently into place. “Ilara-Tora-Narxai… roughly Viscountess… Imeltaneska-Kaliu Hrabe, ilara-Kanxei-Threeb-v-Rasla-Gul… the next bit translates as Lady of Saalis… Jedi Padawan Nasriel Kenobi Threeb.”
“Ben Kenobi, Ae’enn Chiava. Pleased to meet you. Try this piece over there.”
“What’s chiava? I know ae’enn is for some sort of spirit.”
Ben looked slightly embarrassed. “Gift of heaven.”
“Ae’enn Chiava. It’s pretty. All right, Ae’enn Chiava, I’ve been meaning to ask for a while: what’s a crystal planet like, what did you see at Ilum?”
“Nasriel.” In the way of children, even Jedi children, they had obliquely observed his coming, but not troubled to make note of it. Now Obi-Wan stood by the door of Nasriel’s room.
“Yes, Master?” She looked up at him so innocently. As if she really couldn’t guess what he had to say.
“Come here a minute.”
“Of course, Master.”
Inside the room, a small room, scrupulously neat, ascetically impersonal, he closed the door and pointed firmly to the wooden chair at the desk.
“Sit down.” She even sat tidily, ankles crossed under the chair. Only now wondering what was wrong, her hand crept up to her throat, where the black stone of her lucky charm hung. “Nasriel, there is no virtue in any of your names to make you do or not do anything.”
“No, Master,” she agreed readily.
“Ben doesn’t know that. He thinks you made a fair exchange.”
“Master Obi-Wan…” Nasriel shrugged, expansively. With a feeling of distaste, Obi-Wan recognized the gesture as being learned, whether consciously or no, from a street tout – an old miner or furbog trader. Probably from someone like Dex, he belatedly realized, and found himself wondering how many of his own mannerisms would be similarly recognized and disapproved of. “Really, Master. What he doesn’t know isn’t my fault.”
“That policy may be all well and good in drinking dens or diplomacy, but it does not apply in dealings with your friends.”
“Whoever said Ben was my friend?” Nasriel blurted. “Kijé’s my friend, Sima and Cifonabh and Telcontir are my friends. Ben? Sure, in a military sense, as in, not enemy, but not in civvy street, Master. I have to get on with him, otherwise you’ll throw me over, but I’m not under any compulsion to like your nephew just because you do. I’m grateful to you for taking me on, make no mistake, but I’ve no illusions left as to my position here. You chose Ben because you… love him, you have affection for him. Me because you thought Master Jinn would have wanted it. Out of duty. Ben’s got something I’ll never have.”
“Don’t be silly. Why I chose to train you is utterly irrelevant. You played a cruel, dirty trick on Ben. A Sithly trick – and you know that’s not a word I use lightly. A she’iil name, an honor name, is one of the deepest and most precious secrets there is. It’s a vulnerability Ben and I have that you don’t. You tricked him into telling you, and then you tried to take advantage of that weak point. I wasn’t troubled about the lightsaber. But now… now I am disappointed. I had thought you were better than this.”
“Furthermore, the content of your question to Ben was nearly as inappropriate as your means of asking. What a Padawan sees at Ilum, what it feels like there, is deeply personal. Part of the point of navigating the maze of caverns and accepting the visions shown to you there is to reveal your flaws to you so that you can correct them. Qui-Gon used to say that the only way we pass these trials is by realizing that we have failed them. In effect you were asking Ben to tell you his failings. That is not your place. He has shortcomings, as do you, as do I. But the only failures that matter to you are your own – and eventually, if you ever grow up, your Padawan’s. Now go to bed. And I don’t think we will be leaving for Halm in the morning. I’d rather not go anywhere with you until I know I can trust you.”
The reply was barely a murmur. “Yes, Master.”
Coming back into the main room, Obi-Wan felt strangely empty. Not angry, nor even, as he had told Nasriel, disappointed, but only confused. Why had she… how could she… He needed time to work this out. Time and solitude.
Ben did not notice. “Master Obi-Wan, you got a minute?”
“Not just now, Ben.”
“It’s always ‘not just now’!” Ben cried, springing to his feet and kicking the jigsaw puzzle apart. “At least to me. You’re not fair, you aren’t! You said we were to be equal. I know – I know you only took me on to please Dad, and took her because she’s special, she was Qui-Gon’s choice so she must be special like Anakin. But you said that that wouldn’t make any difference! I guess all those politicians have gotten you pretty kriffing used to saying things you don’t mean, you never meant.” Feverishly, he was scooping up handfuls of puzzle pieces, shoving them back into the box. “I only came home tonight to please you. I don’t see the point now. I’m going back to Uli’s. See you around… Nasriel’s-Master.” Snatching up his cloak from where it lay draped over a chair, Ben stormed out.
As if it were possible for the night to get much worse, Obi-Wan’s comlink rang.
“Obi-Wan? It’s me, Bant. I shouldn’t need to call you if your children had the wit to leave comms switched on. Get them both sent in here at once.”
“Why, what’s the matter?” Obi-Wan hedged, reluctant to deliver into the hands of the healers anyone for whom he was responsible.
“I’ve got three Padawans, an Initiate, and a Knight in with Tandari fever: Sima Orezna, Kijé Yenseh, Cifonabh Diato, Sai-Dan Nebesh, and Foxtan Dubh. Ulex Murcrey helpfully informed me that Ben’s been hanging around with them a lot recently, and keeping Nasriel and Kijé Yenseh apart has always been like stopping the sun setting. Force forbid I should have a quiet evening.”
“Tandari? Isn’t that what Master Gorixo died of a few years ago?”
“Splendid memory. Kindly remember this: if I do not see two Padawans from your quarters in the medcenter in ten minutes, I will send for you as well, just to be on the safe side.”
“Very well.” Shuddering, Obi-Wan terminated the call, and, unannounced, palmed open Nasriel’s door. “Former orders rescinded. Get up and dress.”
Nasriel was invisible under a twisted heap of rough wool, curled up and facing the wall. “I am – dressed,” she hiccupped, voice muffled in the blankets. “I’m not – dead yet, though – Force, I wish I – was dead.”
Twitching the blanket deftly aside, Obi-Wan found the Padawan to be truthful on both counts. “Get out, then. You’re wanted in the medcenter. Master Eerin’s worried about Tandari fever: Kijé and Sai-Dan and… some others… are down with it.”
“I’ve had Tandari. Oh, no.” In an instant, Nasriel jerked bolt upright and turned to face her Master. “Is Ben okay? If Nebs is down half the gang will be, and Ben’s been staying with Uli. Master Obi-Wan, I’ve been thinking it over, and I see I’ve been a real… a real yrelt dai-schen, horrible. Please may I go and find Ben? I have to apologize to him. Please say I may.”
She caught up with Ben at the pass-door into the west wing of the residential levels.
“Imeltaneska-Kaliu Hrabe.” He paused, hand hovering over the door control, until he noticed her troubled expression. “Well, what, already?”
“Ben, I have a confession to make.” Deep breath. “I… deceived you. They’re just names. There’s nothing special about them. I’ve acted in a manner unworthy of a Jedi, and I… apologize. I know it’s not enough, but I’m sorry. Lesten vian ame.” I beg you to forgive me.
Ben’s mouth flickered halfway into a smile. “Ey, ame lavarn na’ak arens, raman. Ame lesten abe. I forgive you. And who’s been teaching you Shendi? Your accent’s just plain weird.”
“I read in the Archives. I – thank you, Ben. Can we be friends?”
“Sure. Say, friend, can you get this open? The code Uli gave me is no good.”
“Yeah.” Laying one slim hand on Ben’s arm, Nasriel said gently, “About that. Most of the west-wing gang are down with Tandari fever. Master Eerin wants us to report to the medcenter, in case we’ve caught it as well.”
“Right. Well, no point wasting time. Lead on, Viscountess.”
Nasriel shook her head. “I’m not. I renounced the title five years back. So’s to avoid the temptation Bruck Chun and… Xanatos… faced.” Even twenty years later, Xanatos was never mentioned except after an anxious pause, and in a whisper. “But you did ask specifically for all the titles.”
“Did I?” Absently, Ben studied the door control. “Force I feel weird. Didn’t want to say so until I’d seen Master Obi-Wan. A fine wash-out that was.”
“Medcenter,” Nasriel counseled. “Now.”
Even the soft light and muted, peaceful aura of the healers’ domain did little to conceal Master Bant Eerin’s annoyance about “tree-witted Padawans who haven’t the sense to tell someone they’re ill.”
“Ye – yes, Master.” And Ben’s knees buckled, tumbling him to the floor.
“Kriff,” whispered Bant. Nasriel stared at her. Never before, never, had Master Eerin used language like that. “Get Obi-Wan. Now. Run. I know you’re not allowed to, but that’s never stopped you before.”
It was fortunate that the hour was late. The gossip that would have been started in the halls by the happenings of that night would not have died out in nine days, or even nine weeks. Firstly, it would have been about Master Kenobi, a sure topic to keep the chatterboxes buzzing excitedly. Further, it would have detailed that he had been observed moving at a rapid if not positively unseemly pace toward the medcenter, a place he was usually almost over-careful to avoid. Most shocking of all, it would have been noted that he was white to the lips, and that there was something in his face closely akin to terror.
Bant was always gentle in her manner, and tonight…
“He is gravely ill, Obi-Wan. I understand he has been holding off the symptoms for some days. Unfortunately, as you know -”
“That kind of Force work over so long is exhausting,” finished Obi-Wan, managing to cast a thin veneer of calm over his worry, “and Ben has no strength left to fight the disease.”
“I’m sorry. I… don’t know how to say this. There’s no way of knowing if Ben will… survive. I will do my best. But… Obi-Wan, you will have to be prepared for my best to be not good enough.”
Nasriel shivered. Tandari fever was a horrible way to die, torturing its victims in every nerve, leaving them conscious to the last screaming instant and never granting the relief of sleep until it granted it eternally or until it was forced to loosen its hold. She knew. Jiron’s Master had died from the fever, and his Padawan would have died from it, but for the ceaseless care of a close friend, and her own fierce determination to never give in.
“How is Ben now?” Obi-Wan was asking Bant. Nasriel slipped away into the corridor and closed the door behind her, aware that her Master had noticed her departure, and also received the message she intended the action to send. I recognize that this concerns you and Ben and is therefore none of my business, which implied, I have taken to heart your just rebuke. In the corridor, she settled cross-legged against the wall and resigned herself to wait.
She did not wait long. Within five minutes, Anakin Skywalker strode purposefully around the corner, cloak flying out behind him, eyes hard. Taking in the scene in the hall in a split-second – Padawan waiting patiently, door firmly shut, no Master in sight – his expression softened to concern.
“Is Obi-Wan all right?”
“Yes, Master Skywalker,” Nasriel assured him, rising to her feet. “He’s just talking to Master Eerin.”
Abruptly, Anakin palmed open the door. “Obi-Wan!” While Nasriel tried not to listen to the ensuing conversation, with the door open and Anakin practically shouting, the words leached through both her intense concentration on anything else that occurred to her to think of, and her added precaution of hands pressed over ears.
“I don’t know why I’m the messenger boy,” Anakin snapped, “or why they won’t trust me with a plain message. But Master Windu said to tell you these words exactly: ‘About what we discussed earlier, word has come. Tonight. Now. Not alone. Padawans.’ And he said you should occasionally remember to clip your comm to your belt, not leave it on your desk.”
“Go back and tell him it’s impossible for me to go anywhere right now.”
There was a click as of a comlink’s retention clip being unfastened. “Tell him yourself. Or send Blue out there. You seem to forget: I’m a Knight now.”
Apparently Obi-Wan elected to ignore Anakin. “I can’t leave the Temple now, Bant. Ben -”
“Will recover from the fever no more or less rapidly in your absence. And you won’t help me by being underfoot. Go on, now.”
“Nasriel.” The Padawan did not remember falling asleep there in the corridor, but opened her eyes to find her Master bending over her, shaking her awake. “Go get your things. We leave for Halm within the hour.”
“Halm? Yes, Master! Right away, Master!”
“Not,” Obi-Wan elucidated hastily, “for any reason involving lightsabers. We are going on a war mission. And… I know full well that you have some less than orthodox sources around the Temple – see if you can find a ‘saber crystal somewhere that we can borrow. I have a feeling it will come in useful.”
Deflated, Nasriel murmured, “Yes, Master,” and hurried back to the quarters.